Max von Schillings


Born: April 19, 1868; Düren, Germany   Died: July 24, 1933; Berlin, Germany  
Composer and conductor Max von Schillings was a key figure in late German Romanticism, both as an interpreter and composer. Schillings' contact with the National Socialists has forever tainted his reputation and its aftermath admittedly proved to have irreparable consequences for European music as a whole. Nevertheless, during the prime of his career, Schillings was a highly respected figure who could count himself among the heirs to the Romantic Read more German tradition.

After studying music in Bonn, Schillings entered the University of Munich, where he became fast friends with fellow student Richard Strauss. Schillings' reputation as a conductor began in 1892 when he was named an assistant at the Bayreuth Festival, where by 1902 he was serving as the chief choral conductor. In 1903, Schillings was made professor of conducting at the University of Munich; among his pupils was the young Wilhelm Furtwängler. Schillings' first truly successful foray into composition was the monodrama Das Hexenlied (The Witch's Song, 1904). Based on a decadent tale of horror by Ernst von Wildenbruch, this was written for opera singer and monologist Ludwig Wüllner, who made it a personal specialty and performed it around the world. Schillings' music, normally rather faithfully Wagnerian in orientation, was in this case as radical as that of Strauss' Elektra, and Das Hexenlied, though somewhat uncharacteristic of his style, remains Schillings' best-known work. The opera Moloch (1906) followed, and some sources identify this piece as the beginning of a reactionary strain in Schillings' work; if so, it wasn't evident in the kind of works he was then conducting, as Schillings' would lead the premiere of Elektra in 1905 and Strauss' Salome in 1908.

Schillings produced his masterwork, the opera Mona Lisa, in 1915. In Mona Lisa, Schillings successfully forged a kind of middle ground between post-Romantic German opera and Italian verismo, and the opera would enjoy great popularity in the pre-war period and provide enduring roles for Schillings' actress wife, Barbara Kemp, and later Maria Jeritza. In 1918, he assumed control of the Berliner Staatsoper and led premieres of some the key German operas in both modern and post-romantic idioms, including Strauss' Die Frau ohne Schatten, Pfitzner's Palestrina, Busoni's Arlecchino, and Schreker's Die Gezeichneten. Schillings was forced out of this post in 1925 owing to a conflict with Prussian Minister of Culture Carl Becker, an event that changed him significantly. Afterward, friends noted Schillings' growing interest in ultra right-wing politics and an increased concern for protecting German music from scourge of modernism and other perceived "foreign" influences.

The National Socialist party in Germany must have caught wind of Schillings' change in mood, as in 1931 they began to cultivate him. A revival that year of Schillings' vintage 1900 opera Der Pfeifertag was celebrated as a major event by the Nazi Party, and as they grew in political power Schillings found himself named to positions of power within the German cultural bureaucracy that he had never dreamt of. In 1932, Schillings was appointed president of the Prussian Academy of Arts and expunged this institution of its "decadent" artists, including composer Arnold Schoenberg, graphic artist Käthe Kollwitz, and even his old friend Franz Schreker. Schillings' act spurred on the mass exodus of artistic talent that would soon deprive Germany of most of its best and brightest artists, a situation that would end only in 1941 when the unfortunate ones left behind began to report to the concentration camps.

Schillings suddenly died in July 1933 and never lived to witness the debacle that came in the wake of his decision. His reputation has never recovered from it, although some of his works, such as Das Hexenlied and Mona Lisa, have been revived with success. Schillings' pioneering recordings are some of the most interesting of their kind, including several authoritative readings of Wagner and a startling 1922 recording with Ludwig Wüllner of Das Hexenlied. Despite Schillings' later sentiments, it is one of the most intense-sounding recorded documents of what was then still considered "modern music" found in the acoustical period. Read less

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